Fantastic Night: Tales of Longing and Liberation (Stefan Zweig)

Posted: August 8, 2015 in fiction
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I first knew the name Stefan Zweig when I saw his bust in a park in Paris. It was raining that day, so the statue looked like it was crying, and the idea of a face cast in bronze, weeping and ignored, moved me profoundly. The name seemed familiar, so I started looking for it. When Joan Fontaine died, I watched several of her films and saw Zweig’s name on Letter from an Unknown Woman. I don’t think it’s Ms Fontaine’s best work, but it’s a good role for the star of Rebecca and Suspicion. Then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zweig is listed as the screenwriter’s inspiration. So I’ve been meaning to read some Zweig, and one afternoon I was rebelling against the unrelenting sameness of Midwestern life so I was looking for new books to download and saw this one. The subtitle is what really did it for me, being full of longing and looking for liberation.

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“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is in this collection, and if you’ve seen the picture, it’s a much better representation of what Zweig’s stories are like than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The more recent film is all about daring and bravery in the face of adverse circumstances, but the black-and-white is about desire that is unrequited and unfulfilled, suffering that is only resolved through death. The Grand Budapest does prepare you for Zweig’s style – never use one word when you can use twenty, never use twenty when you can use two thousand, be as romantic and Goethe-esque as possible – but the themes are off. For example, “Fantastic Night” gives one of the most beautiful and realistic descriptions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen:

At that moment I was fully aware for the first time how far advanced the process of paralysis already was in me – it was as if I were moving through flowing, bright water without being halted or taking root anywhere, and I knew very well that this chill was something dead and corpse-like, not yet surrounded by the foul breath of decomposition but already numbed beyond recovery, a grimly cold lack of emotion. It was the moment that precedes real, physical death and outwardly visible decay.

After that episode I began carefully observing myself and this curious paralysis of my feelings, as a sick man observes his sickness. When, shortly afterwards, a friend of mine died and I followed his coffin to the grave, I listened to myself to see if I did not feel grief, if some emotion did not move in me at the knowledge that this man, who had been close to me since our childhood, was now lost to me for ever. But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining straight through me and never lingering within, and hard as I attempted on this and many similar occasions to feel something, however much I tried, through reasonable argument, to make myself feel emotion, no response came from my rigid state of mind. People parted from me, women came and went, and I felt much like a man sitting in a room with rain beating on the window panes; there was a kind of sheet of glass between me and my immediate surroundings, and my will was not strong enough to break it.

Although I felt this clearly, the realisation caused me no real uneasiness, for as I have said, I took even what affected myself with indifference. I no longer had feeling enough to suffer. It was enough for me that this internal flaw was hardly perceptible from the outside, in the same way as a man’s physical impotence becomes obvious only at the moment of intimacy, and in company I often put on a certain elaborate show, employing artificially passionate admiration and spontaneous exaggeration to hide the extent to which I knew I was dead and unfeeling inside. Outwardly I continued my old comfortable, unconstrained way of life without any change of direction; weeks, months passed easily by and slowly, gathering darkly into years. One morning when I looked in the glass I saw a streak of grey at my temple, and felt that my youth was slowly departing. But what others call youth had long ago ended in me, so taking leave of it did not hurt very much, since I did not love even my own youth enough for that. My refractory emotions preserved their silence even to me.

This inner rigidity made my days more and more similar, despite all the varied occupations and events that filled them, they ranged themselves side by side without emphasis, they grew and faded like the leaves of a tree. And the single day I am about to describe for my own benefit began in a perfectly ordinary way too, without anything odd to mark it, without any internal premonition.

 

So, protagonist learns how to feel alive again by giving money to the poor, but this newfound life is cut short because his drive to charity leads him to enlist during World War I. Most of these stories take place in Vienna, and they were written at several different stages of Zweig’s career, but most of them do seem to group themselves around WWI. Zweig hates war, by the way. “Compulsion” is about a draft-dodger who gets away. The author paints this as a victory, but I felt like instead of being pacifist, he was just passive. He had to choose whom to obey, the government or his wife, and he eventually chooses to submit to her instead of the state.

Zweig spends a lot of time describing things, and he does it very well:

The villa lay close to the sea.

The quiet avenues, lined with pine trees, breathed out the rich strength of salty sea air, and a slight breeze constantly played around the orange trees, now and then removing a colourful bloom from flowering shrubs as if with careful fingers. The sunlit distance, where attractive houses built on hillsides gleamed like white pearls, a lighthouse miles away rose steeply and straight as a candle – the whole scene shone, its contours sharp and clearly outlined, and was set in the deep azure of the sky like a bright mosaic. The waves of the sea, marked by only the few white specks that were the distant sails of isolated ships, lapped against the tiered terrace on which the villa stood; the ground then rose on and on to the green of a broad, shady garden and merged with the rest of the park, a scene drowsy and still, as if under some fairy-tale enchantment.

Outside the sleeping house on which the morning heat lay heavily, a narrow gravel path ran like a white line to the cool viewing point. The waves tossed wildly beneath it, and here and there shimmering spray rose, sparkling in rainbow colours as brightly as diamonds in the strong sunlight. There the shining rays of the sun broke on the small groups of Vistulian pines standing close together, as if in intimate conversation, they also fell on a Japanese parasol with amusing pictures on it in bright, glaring colours, now open wide.

A woman was leaning back in a soft basket chair in the shade of this parasol, her beautiful form comfortably lounging in the yielding weave of the wicker. One slender hand, wearing no rings, dangled down as if forgotten, petting the gleaming, silky coat of a dog with gentle, pleasing movements, while the other hand held a book on which her dark eyes, with their black lashes and the suggestion of a smile in them, were concentrating. They were large and restless eyes, their beauty enhanced by a dark, veiled glow. Altogether the strong, attractive effect of the oval, sharply outlined face did not give the natural impression of simple beauty, but expressed the refinement of certain details tended with careful, delicate coquetry. The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.

 

And so you think know everything that is necessary to know about this woman, but of course you don’t. Like most good characters, she’s an iceberg, or an onion. There are layers and layers. People don’t become famous fiction writers without knowing something of layered characters.

I had an experience over the last few weeks that reminds me of a Zweig story, so I’ll share it, minus the detailed descriptions of scenery. A couple of months ago I started working in the evening on the freight crew at a big-box retailer. The crew was bigger than I expected, and they interact more aggressively than I do, which turned me off of them. They spend a lot of time ridiculing the gay guy, even when he’s not around to hear it. Because this is the freight crew, and our job involves a lot of heavy lifting, some of them are rather attractive physically. The combination of all this generally led me to work as independently as I could. One guy, Trent, started blaming me for things that went wrong, but in a joking fashion, so I always just agreed. “Sure, it’s my fault. Yeah, I should have done that differently. No, I don’t seem to care much. I know, I’m a heartless bitch.” Agreeing with these people is the best strategy for me, because they’re looking for something that bothers me, so I don’t give them anything. Once they find a button that gets a response, they keep pushing it until they go too far.

Well, one night a woman came in and asked me for some house wash, so I started walking her over to Paint and we ran into Trent. He greeted her with, “Hey, Nana,” and told me, “OccMan, I got this. No, I got this.” Meaning, get the hell away from my grandmother. Apparently the product she uses is in Garden (I don’t understand why some house and deck wash is in Paint and some in Garden. It doesn’t make sense), not far from where I had been unloading freight, so our way lay together for a short time. Not knowing what else to say, I congratulated her on having a fine grandson and went off on my way. After she had made her purchase, Trent came and found me and thanked me for saying that about him. It seems that he’s known as the family fuck-up, and having someone from outside the family remind them of his intrinsic worth was welcome, needed, and unexpected. Of course, if I had said anything different, we would have had to meet by appointment, “so thanks for not making me kick your ass.” I’m no expert in heterosexual male interactions, but I do know enough of The Bro Code to know that there is only one way to interact with the aged relatives of your colleagues: extremely polite with a side helping of slightly hyperbolical compliment. There is no way I could say what I really thought of him: Ma’am, your grandson has a lovely body and a pretty face, but the person inside them is such an asshole that he puts people off. I mean, he can’t even say thanks without implying a threat.

So I watched him over the next few weeks, and I realized that this deal with being treated like the family fuck-up explained pretty much all his behavior. He puts up a big show of braggadocio, but he’s using that to overcompensate for his low self-esteem. He doesn’t always work hard, because (like all the rest of us) his brain will keep him repeating the behaviors that match his self-image. Other members of the crew were annoyed by the braggadocio and either tried to knock him down a bit, thus making the problem worse, or grumbling about him when he wasn’t around. [Just as a sidenote, I don’t know who came up with this idea that gossiping is a female activity. When placed in a single-sex environment, men are just as bad, possibly worse.] But after the grandmother incident, he was a little nicer to me. You can tell when aggressive men are teasing you as they would a friend (instead of as they would a target) because they smile when they do it and they keep their voices light.

Then, a week or two ago, he asked me if I was single. For a very brief instant I wondered if he had realized that I’m gay and was finally ready to see if the grass really is greener on my side of the fence, but then he explained that he knows this girl. Apparently her and my personalities are very similar, she’s a very pretty girl, and he knows that she’s a good person. As he was trying to convince me to go out with her, it became clear that he himself really loves her, but she knocked him back. I just kept thinking of Mr Jason’s conversation with Quentin in Absalom! Absalom! – the one about how the real incest is a man’s attempt to control his sister’s choice of a suitor, so that he can use the future brother-in-law as a substitute for himself, fucking the sister by proxy. But I think it can also work the other way, controlling the sister’s choice of a suitor so that he can use the sister as a surrogate for himself, forming a successful sexual relationship with the other guy where social pressures prevent him from acting for himself, fucking the boyfriend by proxy. I took it as such a strong sign of fellowship and homosocial affection that I didn’t have the heart to share with him my three very good reasons not to go out with her: (1) She wants to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m already supporting three other people (my children); the next person I date had damn well better have a job. (2) When Trent suggested he be the one to provide for her, she told him that she didn’t want him to feel like he owned her. So she wants to have another person meet her financial needs while still remaining independent of him? It sounds like someone who hasn’t thought through what she wants, and I don’t need that kind of drama in my life. (3) I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I don’t date women. Fortunately, I was able to give him a fourth unanswerable reason: I’m moving out of the state in three days.

If this was really a Stefan Zweig story, there’d be some sort of closure, months or years after this last incident. Trent would have resolved his situation in some way that is realistic, dramatically appropriate without being too happy or too sad. When people write about depression the way that Zweig does, I believe they’re describing themselves. If you’re familiar with The Grand Budapest, Jude Law’s writer character and Ralph Fiennes’s protagonist are modelled not on Zweig’s characters, but on Zweig himself. A bit extreme in action, a bit understated in emotional response, valuing people above ideas or behaviors. A man I’d like to know and be loved by, but whom I would not like to be.

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Comments
  1. finnwest2015 says:

    Wonderful read!
    Finn

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